It seems like the west has descended into rage. Newspapers, mid-day talk shows, social-media feeds, “prove me wrong” videos on YouTube, White House press conferences—no matter where one turns, one is treated to the strained sounds of rage against opponents of the (perceived) good and righteous and true.
It is difficult to know when this recent spate of rage kicked off. Some might point to the tragic death of George Floyd, others to the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps everyone would point to the effects of Covid-19, although depending on one’s tolerances for and assessment of what truly constitutes risk, different people point to very different things surrounding the pandemic. But lest we blame this polarization exclusively on the politics of the past the two to five years, we could easily continue backwards in presidential administrations for some time before we found a time of peaceful, kumbaya politics. Actually, I’m not sure one would ever find such a time post-Genesis 3.
Yet what is at work in our age of rage is not merely a political jockeying for power. Today’s rage is the byproduct of worldviews, quests for the revealing of “glory,” for the revealing of a “kingdom of righteousness.” The postmodern worldview that is stoking rage today goes by a variety of terms: critical theory, wokeism, “Social Justice” (caps and scare quotes intentional), critical race theory (CRT), progressivism, intersectionality, and on and on.
Some balk at referring to critical theory in its varied manifestations using words like “worldview,” arguing instead that CRT or intersectionality is merely an “analytical tool” that might even be used discerningly by Christians: “eating the meat while spitting out the bones.” Others, however, have noted that these offer nothing less than a comprehensive outlook on reality. Some have even argued that critical theory can be considered a religion, or at least quasi-religious.1
In his highly recommended book, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth, Thaddeus J. Williams shows how woke progressivism (what Williams calls “Social Justice B”) seeks nothing less than a utopian kingdom, proclaiming that its adherents are on the side of truth and justice, that they’re not guilty, and that it is imperative to silence anyone “who fails to acknowledge and celebrate our guiltlessness.” He continues to articulate their perspective:
The great triumph over evil, then, must be political. We must use the power of the law to squash those who dare question our self-defined selves. Political activism becomes a spiritual quest to usher in a new heaven and new earth. This quest is every bit as eschatological and utopian as it was for the eighteenth-century French Revolutionaries and the twentieth-century Marxists. But, we must say with tears, this new revolution, like the old ones, renounces the Creator-creature distinction. Drastically overestimating our goodness and underestimating our propensity for evil, the quest will prove just as dystopian.
Williams concludes, “Make no mistake: Social Justice B seeks a theocracy, a theocracy of creation worship that seeks to silence its heretics.”2
By now, readers might be wondering: “This is a Christmas article?” My answer: “Yes, it is!” When Christmas rolls around, we celebrate a political situation: the arrival of the King. Rival political systems—even rival theocratic political systems—are not and never have been interested in conceding their claim on the hearts of earth’s citizens to the King of the Jews. When Herod heard about a new king born in Bethlehem, he didn’t interpret that as a set of private religious beliefs that might be “good for some people” but not necessarily for others. No, his response was to seek out and kill every boy in Bethlehem two years old or younger, lest his power over the people be placed in jeopardy (see Matt. 2:13, 16).
But this political Christmas claim, “a King has been born this day in Bethlehem,” allows us to step back from the din of our day being dispensed by entertainment media outlets, and yet again reorient ourselves to the true situation of the world. The King has come, ushering in a kingdom of glory that speaks a far better and sweeter word than the woke kingdom of rage. This Christmas, as we seek an alternative to the worldview of rage, we find a deep well from which to drink in Isaiah 40:1–5.
The prophet Isaiah looked beyond his own day, to the time of exile that had been predicted for Judah as discipline for its ongoing sin and despising of the Lord’s covenant. And yet he saw still further into the future, that this exile would not be a sentence of final abandonment but an instrument of refinement and restoration for God’s own. As such, Isaiah 40:1 lifts the famous strain: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
These words echo down the centuries, their simplicity and their profundity capturing the hearts of God’s people. It is no surprise that the Heidelberg Catechism opens its presentation of the Christian faith by echoing this theme of comfort. Isaiah 40:1–5 is, after all, “in a very remarkable manner, a perfect summary of what the message of the Christian faith really is.”3
Though the ragers in our day are not the Babylonians who were chosen by God as instruments of his anger for specific, theocratically-oriented acts of covenant violation by Israel and its kings, their mocking words against the cause of God’s people sting in every age. And yet whenever ragers are aligned determinedly against God’s own, God’s people can rest in the sheer wonder of the news that God himself is aligned for his people, for his prized possession. He is for their comfort.
Notice two things in Isaiah 40:2 (English Standard Version) that situate the plight of God’s people:
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare [tsaba’] is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”
First, Jerusalem has been in a time of hard service or warfare. The Hebrew word [tsaba’] often refers to war but is also an expression used of daily toil. Job 7:1, for example, states:
Has not man a hard service saba’ on earth,
and are not his days like the days of a hired hand?
Other examples abound which help to highlight that warfare is not all “guts and glory.” Any soldier who has done his tour in an active combat zone will attest to the strain and drain of war. While the warfare of God’s people in Isaiah 40 does depict their suffering the discipline of covenant sanctions, chapters 40–41 also note the oppression of idolatry, both that of the idol-worshipping nations and that of those professing Israelites who have attempted to synthesize worship of Yahweh with “all the best” that paganism has to offer. And yet just as the attempted synthesis of worldly wisdom with Christianity today leaves the church vulnerable to attack and Christian thinking and maturity impoverished, so too the idol synthesis of Isaiah’s day made Israel’s hard service even harder than it might have been.
Second, Jerusalem has received a number of benefits, a reversal of her fortune, so to speak. Her warfare has ended! She has not been left sweeping up the mess her own rebellion has caused; she is not perpetually to be oppressed by her foes. Her iniquity has been pardoned and payment that perfectly corresponds to the debt incurred has been made. When God says that she has received “double” for all her sins, this does not mean he has punished her twice as much as she deserved. No, the word translated “double” (Hebrew kepel) refers to a matching or commensurate amount: God’s righteous judgment has been executed fully and finally, and she need not fear that more is somehow to come.4 The woke agenda might claim that satisfaction for past injustice can never be sufficiently made, but praise God a different message comes from Scripture.
God comforts his people with the announcement that though they have been engaged in warfare, though rage around them threatens to undo them, though their own sins have brought upon them painful consequences, God is not through with his own. In fact, he is making a tremendous announcement about how their comfort is to be achieved, words found in Isaiah 40:3–5:
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places plain.”
The voice of the messenger concludes in verse 5:
“And the glory [kabod] of the Lord shall be revealed glh
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is exciting news, but how much longer until it takes places? When does the comfort offered by Isaiah come to fruition? The Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 3:1–3) tells us of the fulfillment of this message:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
John heralded that God’s glory was about to be revealed. Every impediment to the announcement of that message would be overcome—valleys raised, mountains flattened, rough paths smoothed out—and God’s glory would be revealed.
Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah came, he would “pour contempt on all human glory,” John Newton’s interpretation of the phrase “every mountain and hill be made low” in verse 4. But more than that, the Messiah would manifest God’s glory in its fullness. Newton explains that in Christ’s authoritative and powerful preaching, his miraculous control of the elements, his overcoming of death and disease, his judging of human hearts and his forgiving of sins, and in his ascension and his commissioning and equipping of his disciples, something significant occurred: “Then the glory of the Lord was revealed, and spread from one kingdom to another people. We still wait for the full accomplishment of this promise, and expect a time when the whole earth shall be filled with his glory; for the mouth of the word has spoken it.”5
This expression, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” is an interesting one. The Hebrew verb “reveal” (glh) and the Hebrew noun “glory” (kabod) occur together like this in only one other place: 1 Samuel 4:21–22, which describes the aftermath of the ark of the covenant being captured by the Philistines when Eli’s foolish sons, Hophni and Phinehas, dragged it off into battle as though it was a lucky rabbit’s foot. Upon hearing of their death, the lazy and out-of-shape Eli fell from his chair and broke his neck.
What is most important, however, are the final acts and words of Phinehas’s widow, for whom the announcement of the death of her husband caused her to go into labor. She collapsed and gave birth, and then died shortly thereafter. But before she succumbed to her grief she uttered the name to be given to the child: Ichabod, which consists of the Hebrew word ‘i, which means “there is no,” and the Hebrew word kabod, which means “glory.” (“There is no glory.”)
And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed [glh + kabod] from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, “The glory has departed [glh] + [kabod] from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” (1 Sam. 4:21–22)
The expression “glory” can be understood abstractly as referring to the splendor and majesty of God, or as referring to the glorious benefits of God’s presence. Certainly “glory” (kabod) can mean this. It is related to the Hebrew word for “weight, heaviness” (kabed), which is a fitting way of describing one’s splendor or greatness. (Note that this is usually what is meant when the Old Testament speaks of the “glory” of humans; e.g., Gen. 45:13; Exod. 28:2, 40; 1 Kings 3:13). But in this case, God’s kabod-glory means something more.
For God’s kabod-glory to depart is for God himself to depart since God’s glory is in many places of the Old Testament a visible manifestation of his presence (e.g., Exod. 16:10; 24:16–17; Lev. 9:23; Num. 14:10). There are times God manifests himself in a particular visible form (e.g., as a man, as the Angel of the Lord), but his appearance as the kabod-glory is especially striking.
In some passages, it is depicted either as or accompanied by luminosity and brightness (Exod. 24:17; Deut. 5:24). In other passages, the darkness and hiddenness of God’s kabod-glory is stressed (1 Kings 8:12). In Ezekiel 1, the kabod-glory is even depicted anthropomorphically as a man, although Ezekiel’s awe and sense of God’s otherness and transcendence leads him to refer to his human-like body parts as “appearance” rather than as the part itself (e.g., “the appearance of a man,” “the appearance of his waist”).
What is striking, though, is how Isaiah turns these words on their head. Phinehas’s wife saw that when this action happened to the glory of God, it was a sign of God’s absence. The Hebrew word glh, “depart,” refers to going up and/or away. It is no accident that the word for “exile” or “exiles” is galut. God was, in a manner of speaking, exiled from his people—by their own folly and presumptuous behavior. Kabod-glory departure, according to Samuel, is a bad thing. But Isaiah turns this on its head by investing the same terms—glh + kabod-glory—with a completely different meaning, a redemptive meaning.
When we come to the Gospel of Luke, we are shown that event that fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 40:1–5. In Luke 2:25, we meet Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was waiting for the “consolation” of Israel. The word “consolation” (paraklesis) of Luke 2:25 is linguistically related to the way in which the Septuagint translated “comfort” in Isaiah 40:1 (parakaleo), thereby showing that Israel was still awaiting the consolation or comfort being offered in Isaiah 40:1, and now Simeon is associated with that wait. But Luke also depicts him as being one of the first recipients of it upon its revelation in the fullness of time:
And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:26–32)
Isaiah told Israel that comfort would come in the ending of its warfare (cf. “departing in peace”), in the pardoning of iniquity (cf. “your salvation”), and in his glory-presence being revealed. And there, in the form of an almost six-week-old baby, Simeon saw just that. This is why John could write: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Our age of rage claims to be offering glory—the glory of “justice” and being on the “right side of history,” however that is defined—but the so-called glory of woke progressivism has a peculiar fruit: rage. Division is stoked between neighbors, family members, even church members. And yet this is a season of the year that pivots toward something better: the true glory-presence of God that has come to us, a glory that bears the fruit of grace and truth. This Christmas, let us again be gripped by the profound truth that God is with us. He has revealed his glory for our good in Christ the Son. Let us turn the ragers of our society toward a better answer to prejudice and partiality than that offered by critical theories. And this Christmas, let us rest our souls in the comfort and reconciliation brought about in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rev. R. Andrew Compton is Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN, and a minister in the URCNA.
1. From a non-Christian perspective, see John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (New York: Penguin, forthcoming); Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020). From a Christian perspective, see Voddie T. Baucham Jr., Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe (Washington, D.C.: Salem Books, 2021); Darel E. Paul, “Atheists Against Antiracism,” First Things 314 (June/July 2021): 52–56.
2. Thaddeus J. Williams, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 33.
3. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The All-Sufficient God: Sermons on Isaiah 40 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 2.
4. Meredith G. Kline, “Double Trouble,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32, no. 2 (1989): 171–79.
5. John Newton, The Works of John Newton, new ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 3:29.